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Too Many Biomedical Graduate Students, Not Enough Jobs 226

Posted by timothy
from the great-big-invisible-hand dept.
stillnotelf writes "ScienceInsider is covering a National Institutes of Health advisory committee report that details problems in the U.S. biomedical research workforce. Current policies encourage the training of large numbers of biomedical graduate students, as they are the cheapest labor available, but the research enterprise is not structured to absorb them into full-time scientist positions. The report's varied suggestions include removing graduate student funding from investigator-linked research grants (shifting it to institution-linked training grants instead) and encouraging the hiring of staff scientists as permanent lab members. This would reduce the number of trainees, but increase the proportion of trainees that maintain careers as researchers. ScienceInsider further notes that a National Research Council report 14 years ago noted a similar problem, but never motivated change."
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Too Many Biomedical Graduate Students, Not Enough Jobs

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  • System is rotten (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:01PM (#40342073)

    As the boyfriend of a neuroscience postdoc I'm often baffled at how broken this system has become. Many scientific reports are false or suffer serious problems that are never revealed because the level of competition created by the squeezed grant funding has made a an incorrect hypothesis a career ending disaster. The work load is really high too. Labs have Saturday mandatory work hours and 11-12 hour work days during the week. All this with a 40k salary and limited benefits. Surely the brain is poorly enough understood that there's plenty of room for research. The system as it is, with so much bad research out there by scientists who were afraid of abandoning their hypothesis and watching their career disintegrate, is fully rotten. I'm convinced radical changes are necessary for it to offer any benefit to society at all.

  • by Sir_Sri (199544) on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:16PM (#40342151)

    Right, but a PhD in something, even if they're a 'teacher' is really on a 40/40/20 contract or similar. 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% administrative. There are only so many places it's worth trying to build any research program and course selection, so you can only absorb so many graduates. A professor isn't a 'teacher' like a high school or public school teacher, you teach a handful of classes a year and the rest of the time do research. Whereas a teacher is teaching, or preparing for teaching or marking from teaching full time.

    Strictly speaking comp sci would have the same problem, we graduate as many PhD's as we have faculty/researchers - and that's every year were it not for the massive industry sink of 'go make software for a living'. So we'd be over supplied for faculty positions by about a factor of 30, though smaller schools can't grant PhDs so it's harder to do the math and be sure. Either way. If you don't have research grant money for faculty there's no point in training future faculty.

    Now the question with biomedical research I would think is why aren't there industry jobs, and what's been happening to the graduates? It's possible this 'problem' is fabricated, and the US is just serving as the worlds training centre for biomedical science and that they're just going back to home countries or are going into non reporting areas (where they do broadly biomedical work but not specifically talked to by the NIH). From the looks of the report there's a 5 year backlog between getting a PhD and getting a faculty position, that's a problem by itself, but it's not clear if that's getting worse or better from the report. It's also possible that industry is just not doing biomedical research in the US (are the graduates being given bad skillsets, overpriced etc?), and I would think the other option is that there just isn't the money to support this many grads anywhere, and they should cut back. That's unfortunate, but better to tell people 'go do something else' sooner rather than later.

  • by artor3 (1344997) on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:31PM (#40342197)

    It's not just a cultural problem on the job-seekers' side. Ever hear of the phrase "over-qualified"?

    If someone with a PhD applies for an entry level job in engineering, their resume is likely to get round filed.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:40PM (#40342245)

    Internships are such a fuzzy concept for most people. Among I.T. folks in particular, I've seen quite the battle cry lately for unpaid internships to be made flat-out illegal. That would be a foolish thing to do and here's why.

    Unpaid internships were originally conceived by universities so that the student could come into a company, get a bit of training, and see how the business works from the inside. The company is supposed to derive no benefit from having the intern there. I've worked in places that did this and this kind of experience is very valuable for the student because it gives them a glimpse of the "real world" and hopefully informs their career choices.

    Paid internships, in contrast, do have the intern doing real entry-level work and, for the most part, has all of the responsibilities of an employee.

    Any company which brings in unpaid interns and has them doing actual work which directly or indirectly benefits the company is probably operating outside the law in most states. Any states which do not expressly prohibit this need to have their citizens stand up and make it so, but with the reason and clear-mindedness to not just make all unpaid internships flat-out illegal as you would propose.

  • by MacTO (1161105) on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:52PM (#40342287)

    ... a backlash against education. Schools have been training too many people for certain disciplines for decades, but it seems as though they are now training too many people for all disciplines. In some cases, there are 10 people holding a degree in a field for every job opening. Not only are those other 9 people looking for work out of their field, they are often stuck with minimum wage jobs, over four years of lost income, and their career is set back over four years.

    So what are these graduates going to end up telling their children?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:52PM (#40342291)

    Some areas can't hire post-docs and staff scientists fast enough.

    Really? Which ones? Do tell.

    I'm on my second post-doc in bioinformatics - and I had to move to Asia just to get that. Many nights I'm literally awake at 3am wondering how I'm going to feed my family when my current contract runs out.

    In a couple years, sequencing a human genome is going to cost $1,000 (or less) and millions of people will have genome sequences to be analyzed. Ideally, I'd get a job writing software for (medical) genome analysis. But there's only so much of that kind of software that's really needed and lots of young hotshots looking to prove themselves. So realistically that's a long shot.

    In a few years most major hospitals will probably have bioinformatics departments to analyze genome sequence (like radiology departments to analyze x-rays) so maybe I could find something there. But then this morning I was thinking maybe I could go back to school and get a masters in genetic counseling.

    So, anyway, if you actually know where the biomedical jobs are, I'd love to know. It sure would be great not to have to worry quite so much about how I'm going to feed my family

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 16, 2012 @01:02AM (#40342567)

    I could quite easily leave and work for a finance company as a quantitative analyst, earning 3 or 4 times my current salary, and many in my position do just that, but in doing so I would have to give up my freedom to pursue my ideas to go work for someone else. I enjoy my job too much for that.

    Bullshit. This is what people tell themselves because a friend-of-a-friend got hired at a bank in the early 90's. Fire an application off to Goldman Sachs and tell them you've worked in academia all your life, and now you've decided you would like to make 300K. You can tell them about all the "high impact papers" you (i.e. students who have worked for you) have written. Maybe mention you've heard of Black–Scholes. I'm sure they'll be kicking down your door.

  • by neurocutie (677249) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @01:26AM (#40342637)
    Slashing postdoc funding may reduce grad students and training, but is that the real goal here? The goal that I'm interested in is doing the most research and gaining the most understanding about biology, science, etc, etc. Postdocs in fact are the MOST PRODUCTIVE workers in research in terms of research output -- they are much cheaper than faculty, they are well-trained and do what they are doing in the lab, they don't have to worry about grants, admin, teaching, etc. The most productive labs are the ones that have the most postdocs. And from the point of view of the individual, one's BEST YEARS are the postdoc years, for these same reasons.

    so if the goal is reducing trainees, fine, slash way. But if you actually want research RESULTS and productivity, you need to insure a healthy and plentiful stream of well-trained postdocs.

    if anything, the LEAST effective people in the chain are the SENIOR faculty, they are the most expensive and do the least research. Cut there if you want to cut something... (which I don't, I'd rather cut bombs and missles... its ridiculous that the monies we are talking about saving and slashing amount to a couple of bombs and missles...)

  • by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @02:16AM (#40342803) Homepage Journal

    I must admit I'm on a bit of a high horse, as my life's passion has always been bioinformatics. I'm a better software engineer than most software engineers I know, and I fulfilled part of my Bachelor's general education requirement with a third-year course in physical biochemistry taught by the same professors as my mandatory third-year proteins-and-enzymes biochemistry course. (They weren't exactly picky.) I'll also be honest in that I'm just entering my Master's in the fall, and can't really comment on the realities of the job market with anything but wide-eyed hope.

    My advice is that you may actually want to consider computing more seriously. Research hospitals pay out their rear ends for bioinformaticians just with masters' degrees, and that's in a field where only a handful of institutions really offer dedicated programs, doing applied work (i.e., not a lot of code review.) Software engineering ability really is not actually a prerequisite, as most of the code turned out by computational biologists is utter garbage by engineering standards (and people with wetlab experience are uniformly way better at writing papers.) I'd also imagine grants are relatively easy to get, if you wanted to keep to a more biochemical circle, given that even popular science magazines are aware of the "[too much] data problem," but, well, I'm no lab head. :)

    The truth is that there are very few CS people with an interest in molecular biology or biochemistry. Out of the 14 students graduating this year from my program in our computational biology-and-medicine concentration, I was the only student who definitely professed an interest in genomics rather than robot-aided surgery. (It wasn't the largest CS department, but I've got another anecdote—a friend looking at prospective supervisors at Notre Dame sparked interest just by mentioning that she knew "a bioinformatician.") On the whole, the amount of knowledge in genetics and chemistry required to be an effective molecular biologist just doesn't fit into the learning approach of most people who seek out post-undergrad education in computer science; they have a certain whimsy to them that you'd recognize mostly in philosophy or literature majors. They're just not detail-oriented enough to get all the way into it.

    So... don't despair. Not yet, anyway.

  • by sqrt(2) (786011) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @02:20AM (#40342813) Journal

    Aye, we all want low taxes, but those who have the most to potentially "lose" want low taxes most of all. They've figured out they can use a fraction of their wealth to lobby for protection of the rest of it.

    And I only start to care about other people having more wealth than I when so many have so much more that it starts to cause problems in my society. Some inequality is doubtless necessary as a motivating factor, but we are so far beyond what is necessary. The cost of maintaining our current levels of inequality are great.

    The last and most ironic victim might be capitalism itself, if inequity is allowed to persist too long at too high a level. Every business needs customers, and customers need to have money to spend. Think of the implications of every year there being less customers with less money to spend because too much wealth has accumulated at the top. The entire system eventually becomes too top heavy to stand, and collapses. We're probably still a fair ways off from that happening, but I believe we're closer than most people are willing to admit.

    We are certainly close enough that we should be having serious discussions on what to do about it, what the future economy might look like. We're not even doing that. No one is seriously discussing a possible future where selling your labor for money to live is the norm, despite the fact that every year it becomes harder and harder to do so.

  • by mysidia (191772) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @03:15AM (#40342969)

    I would have never considered an unpaid internship. It's amusing that people want to make them illegal, I'd flat out refuse to take one.

    However, there are people that do take them. And in some cases unpaid interns do constitute competition against paid entry-level applicants, resulting in smaller supply of entry-level jobs available, and therefore, lower wages / less-advantageous hiring terms for professional entry-level applicants who want to be paid.

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